ChatGPT has found a friend in the Wichita district in Kansas. The district has integrated artificial intelligence technology into almost every aspect of daily life, offering a glimpse into what a 21st century classroom may end up looking like.
How it all started
Rob Dickson, the chief information officer in the district, said he was introduced to the new chatbot right around the time it launched in 2022. Almost immediately, he decided to present it to district leadership to become familiar with it. Then, district leaders decided staff members across the district needed to be trained as well.
Dickson said he recognized AI like this was not going away: It was here to stay. So, the district had to act accordingly. Dickson compared the phenomenon to when phones first started becoming an issue in schools. In the early 2000s, he remembered taking phones away from students if they were being used during instructional time. Now, the script has flipped; phones are inseparable from the person they belong to.
“So many of our kids have things that are a part of their life that is hooked up to [their phones] … like medical monitoring,” Dickson said. “I think with AI, it will be the same way. It’s finding the balance within the school system.”
Tia Jones, one of the technology instructional coaches in the district, was excited to introduce a new time-saving tool to teachers. She said although many teachers first experienced the chatbot through inappropriate student use, she knew teachers could get on board with the right approach, with a deeper grounding in the technology.
“The main thing with teaching teachers about any technology is to introduce how it’s going to help them save time in the classroom,” Jones said. “That’s where we all start … [and] some of them got very, very excited and some were a little bit hesitant.”
In April, the entire educational staffwas given access to ChatGPT and then participated in a district-wide summer “ChatGPT camp” to master the ins and outs of the chatbot and maximize its use in the classroom.
Only the faculty and staff in Wichita Public Schools have access to ChatGPT. If a student is using AI in the classroom, they must be supervised.
Reducing the stigma for teachers
Several educators in the district said there were many ways for teachers to capitalize on ChatGPT to streamline their day-to-day.
Trish Moya, special education math teacher, asked ChatGPT to “explain Pi to 8th grade student” and then to make the explanation “even more simple”. Here’s how it responded:
Scroll down for more examples of how Wichita educators are using ChatPGT.
“It’s a good way to get unstuck from a position,” said Katelyn Schoenhofer, a middle school technology coach in Wichita. “Sometimes, with teachers, we have these really cool ideas and dreams that we want to accomplish. The logistics or the small details end up bogging us down—making things so much quicker, finding ways to use AI to help get feedback to kids, help lesson plan, even to help communicate with parents and make those things more streamlined.”
Schoenhofer also said she has had to work to reduce stigma surrounding AI with many of the teachers on her campus.
“Our teachers start out … fearful before they work with kids on this,” Schoenhofer said. “It’s very similar to when we first had the calculator, where teachers were worried kids wouldn’t be able to do the math. Now, teachers are worried that kids aren’t going to be able to think for themselves, but that’s not the case. We’re teaching them that it is a tool.”
Amanda Young, the principal of Education Imagine Academy, a virtual K-12 school in Wichita, said grappling with new technologies is essential so they can guide their students to use it.
“I think it’s important not only for teachers to be able to use AI, but for students to start learning how to use those tools because … those are tools they are going to need to be successful in life and in their professions,” Young said. “We have to make sure that we’re using tools that [students] are going to be using—not tools that we are comfortable with.”
Dyane Smokorowski, coordinator of digital literacy and citizenship, wanted to use shadow puppetry as an introduction to a unit on Mesopotamia and asked ChatGPT for help. (She had to clarify that the unit was for 11-year-olds.) Here’s one of the scenes it generated:
Scroll down for more examples of how Wichita educators are using ChatPGT.
In her experience, Young said, using AI does not harm the critical thinking abilities of students, but it can foster a deeper understanding of the new technologies that come into fruition in their own lifetimes.
“How do you find out that it can’t give you a description of a video unless you try it?” Young said. “New technology can be scary for teachers just because it’s the unknown, but … it can be a way that can create community and learning in a classroom because it takes the teacher and students collaborating together to think critically to find out how the tool works.”
Where ChatGPT falls short
The educators in Wichita said they also recognized that ChatGPT has limitations.
Dickson, the district CIO, said the district is rolling out Bing Chat Enterprises as a way to fill the gaps in ChatGPT. Teachers will now be able to input student information into the system without compromising student data. Staff must use their district credentials to sign into Bing to chat with the AI; this is different from ChatGPT because the latter is a public model and if educators use it, they run the risk of leaking private information.
“It’s all protected within our environment,” Dickson said. “It’s not used by Microsoft in any way, they have no access to it and it’s not used to train any models. It would give teachers an added set of security as well as being able to do more things with it than what they’re limited to on public ChatGPT.”
Dickson also said ChatGPT struggles to summarize videos or podcasts for students. He said the chatbot often “hallucinates” and mischaracterizes the long-form medium it’s asked to summarize.
He also pointed out that ChatGPT is limited to only 4,000 characters.
“If you take a long-form conversation like a podcast, you’re going to reach that limit very quickly and not have the whole space,” Dickson said.
Kyle Schoenhofer, a computer science and esports teacher at Education Imagine Academy and husband of Katelynn, said he has seen problems when ChatGPT is used for higher-level math in place of a calculator.
“Once you start getting into algebra and stuff like that, it just loses all reality,” Schoenhofer said.
In many other ways, though, the school system has sussed out how to use ChatGPT to its advantage in almost every possible position in the district. Here’s a sampling of how Wichita educators are using the technology.
Communicating and adapting texts
“I’ve used it to expedite and create things more streamlined for myself. Emails, instructions for an asynchronous course [get dropped] into ChatGPT and ask it to rewrite for clarity, optimism, positivity, and to add emojis to provide context for … students [when] English may not be their first language or students who have learning differences.”
—Dyane Smokorowski, coordinator of digital literacy and citizenship
“As an interrelated teacher (special education), I have to adapt just about everything I teach. It is really a time and brain saver to be able to put in what I want to teach directly [for word problems], copy and paste, and then say, ‘Explain in the style that I need explained.’ Then I can through and pick out the parts that work and don’t work.”
—Trish Moya, special education math teacher
“We do a weekly newsletter to our parents, and it takes a lot of time because we have 13 grade levels at our school. Narrowing down the most important information is … something that takes a lot of time for me as the creator. It saves me so much time that I can then devote to helping my teachers, students, [and] families in the virtual setting.”
—Amanda Young, principal of Education Imagine Academy
“If there’s any kind of research that I need to provide to teachers, I will go to ChatGPT and say, ‘Give me five articles based on critical reading processes that I could share with teachers.’ I do have to go into those and make sure that’s the direction (I’m) wanting to go with those articles. It’s a good starting point.”
—Tia Jones, technology instructional coach
“Right now, I would say research is huge for us since we’re about to build a strategic plan. I can ask conversational-based questions, dig deeper, and can even take my lens and widen it if I want to. Research is just more complete than it ever was before.”
—Rob Dickson, chief information officer
Student feedback, planning and gamifying lessons
“I will copy and paste student work in [ChatGPT], state the standard, and ask for feedback … to improve their work. It’s not necessarily grading the paper. … I planned an entire semester of lessons completely using ChatGPT as a tool. [AI] is not going to replace us, but it can really help us save time.”
—Nancy Henderson, middle school English teacher
“ChatGPT is good if you already have a lesson that you want to gamify … or need something fun. This lesson stinks, it’s boring, [so] go in and reinvent it on ChatGPT just by saying, ‘I want something better.’ It may not give you the answer, but it’ll give you the creative juices to go and finish it.”
—Kyle Schoenhofer, computer science and esports teacher
A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2023 edition of Education Week as ChatGPT Is Everywhere in This District. Here’s What It Looks Like